Even before a new state law this year required it, staff members at schools in Calaveras County were taking a proactive approach to preventing youth suicides, school officials say.
California Department of Public Health statistics consistently show Calaveras County with one of the highest suicide rates in the state. Unfortunately, that number includes young people.
“Isolation is one identifier of suicide, and it is difficult to prevent isolation in a community like Calaveras,” said Kathryn Eustis, director of youth development and prevention programs at the Calaveras County Office of Education.
The Calaveras County Office of Education has not taken those statistics lightly, and is already taking steps to implement in-school suicide prevention programs. Eustis says the new law, Assembly Bill 2246, is a welcome addition to efforts many schools are already embarking on, including in Calaveras County.
“I don’t think this is a mandate schools are going to resist. This will be seen as supportive and not dictatorial,” said Eustis. “Mental health is grossly underfunded and under resourced. As far as support in our community, state and country, mental health is a huge issue and it is important for people working in schools to see that the Legislature supports these efforts.”
Assembly Bill 2246, approved in August, will require schools to implement suicide prevention programs for students in grades seven to 12. Officials here say Calaveras County schools are already taking action.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, and roughly 17 percent of students high school have seriously considered suicide. The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for lesbian LGBT youth that co-sponsored the bill, reported that nearly 20 percent of the young people who access the organiation’s resources are from California.
The bill requires that “When a young person comes to a teacher for help, the teacher has the knowledge, tools, and resources to respond.”
“We are definitely on this, we are ahead of the curve,” Eustis said of efforts being made in Calaveras County to address the issue, including a partnership with Calaveras County Health and Human Services.
Sherri Sedler, a counselor at Bret Harte Union High School, echoed Eustis’s assessment, and said that Bret Harte is being proactive not just about suicide prevention, but also about overall student wellbeing and mental health.
“Historically at Bret Harte, we have actively provided many programs and services in a variety of ways to prevent suicide,” said Sedler. “The new bill and requirements are viewed as a positive step by the legislature in support of what we have been doing already. It has now been articulated in a way that validates the need to prioritize student mental health on school campuses, which is greatly needed in California.”
“We are implementing many programs here at Bret Harte as a means of providing protective layers to prevent suicide from occurring and to add another level of support to address the variety of mental health needs for our student population,” Sedler said.
Safe School Ambassadors is a new program that Sedler started to help students prevent and stop mistreatment and violence among peers.
“We have trained over 40 students and five adults to prevent and deescalate mistreatment on campus by learning nonviolent communication and intervention skills when they see it on campus.” she said.
According to Stopbullying.gov, a federal government website managed by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, “bully victims” are the child group with the greatest risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior.
Eustis said that the ability kids have to bully each other electronically has had an obvious impact on school communities. Angels Camp Police made multiple visits to Bret Harte High School this fall to investigate threats posted electronical and rumors of electronic threats, including a hit list one student composed and threats of a “coming storm” posted by another.
Eustis says Calaveras County schools have put a lot of effort into trying to police cyber bullying, and into implementing projects that encourage students to police themselves. All of the schools in Calaveras have anti-bullying programs in which students talk about the dangers of cyber bullying.
“We’re trying to build a culture of intolerance of bullying among students by working on school climate,” Eustis said. “We are trying to build school climates where students are mental health resources for each other and school is a safe space for that.”
Sources of Strength is a new program at Bret Harte that is an example of that model. It is aims at reducing the risk of suicide, violence and substance abuse by bringing together and training student peer leaders to become role models and mentors for other students.
Bret Harte will offer a program called Breaking Down the Walls in the spring. The program will provide a space for all students, regardless of their peer group, to talk to each other to help students understand that they are not alone in whatever they might be going through.
Eustis said that she and school administrators understand that sometimes there is only so much students can do to help their peers, so having staff who are equipped to handle student distress is an important component of these efforts.
Staff will use a program called Kognito at Bret Harte and other Calaveras schools to address that issue. Kognito uses virtual role-play to increase the level of comfort and competency among staff to identify, approach, and refer students showing signs of psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
“The schools are very receptive of the programs, but implementation is a challenge. It takes almost a heroic effort on the part of school staff. They do it, but it is extra effort,” said Eustis. “School has a different role than it used to have and it has to play a more protective role than it did in the past.”
Calaveras High School currently offers a peer mentoring class with emotional and academic mentoring training, with a focus on suicide prevention. Currently, there are 26 students in the class.
Carol Tortorich is the faculty advisor for the class, she said she’s seen an increase in the use of the peer mentoring program at Calaveras High School.
“It’s kind of cool to see,” said Tortorich. “It helps students really who need emotional or academic support. Sometimes students just need another teenager to vent to.”
Sean P. Thomas contributed to this report